May 2023 Poetry Feature: New Poems by Our Contributors

New poems by TIMOTHY DONNELLY, JANUARY GILL O’NEIL, and NGUYEN BINH

Table of Contents:
—Timothy Donnelly, “Eglantine” and “Mill”
—January Gill O’Neil, “Us”
—Nguyen Binh, “Two of the Graves by the Highway” and “Uncle” 

 

Eglantine
By Timothy Donnelly

            after Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

Thorn-blossom! Tender thing, prone to solitude
     like yours truly, don’t get it twisted if I reach out my hand—
it isn’t to pluck you, who are my beacon down this path, but a gesture
    of acknowledgment common among my kind.

When the lukewarm breezes nod off in late shade,
     when the tired day shuts its flaming eyes,
when night’s contagion spreads, darkening the leaves,
     it is the light of your perfume that guides me on.

That said, your forehead, dampened in the twilight dew,
     bends down in its burden as if to hide tears;
your perfumes enclose themselves in their white apartment,
     and darkness does unflattering things to your shape and color.

Dog rose, pull yourself together! The day will soon appear
     to reopen your chalice with reanimated fires,
and restore to brightness your dead, or dying, aura.
    That forehead of yours will resume its balmy sparkle!

Meanwhile, myself a stranger to this benightment
     no less than you, I too retreat, surrendering to what
surrounds us; but a beam of hope drills down through the dark as if
     sent from a home planet, and all I have to do for it is wait. 

 

Mill
By Timothy Donnelly

            after Émile Verhaeren 

     Night’s turbine is churning very slowly
a heaven of mechanical melancholy,
turning and slowing, its blades the color of leavings,
     sad and weak and tired and heavy, infinitely.

     Since morning, pleading, its arms
have reached out and fallen, reached out and fallen
into the soot-black, answerless nothing—
     the unbroken silence of nature extinguished.

     Winter sleeps one off on the rooftops,
clouds have started to doubt their integrity,
and past the rampart where snapped cables dangle
     roadways extend toward a lifeless horizon.    

     Look, over there—ruined dwellings
cluster in a fairy circle; a halogen lamp hangs
from the ceiling in one of them like a gourd, tossing
     its eerie patina on the wall and in the window.

     And it’s here, in this debris, that we,
night’s residents, whose speech you have been
waiting to overhear, have fixed our eyes in silence 
    on the turbine as it turns and, powerless, slows and dies.

 

Us
By January Gill O’Neil             

We meet in cities where we have no connections,
makes us feel anonymous, even to ourselves.

On this weekend, Daylight Savings gives back
one sweet hour. We hear the city from our hotel room:

cheers from a bar on a chilly night, sirens,
buses grinding to a halt.

Our room smells of dull lemon and want.
His dimples flare like the moon’s half crease.

And when I tell him to ride me like a Peloton,
he laughs. What we do to each other—

it’s as if nothing but having will satisfy us,
or maybe we’re the right amount of too much.

When he takes the dome of my breast
into his mouth, it disappears. Unlanguaged,

we call to our animal selves
howl and float in the clarity of shadows

every window inside of us opening.

 

Two of the Graves by the Highway
By Nguyen Binh

We came to invite you home for Tết, as always:
A wordless garlicked taxi grumbling to your lot
With betel, roses, money, fruits, Korean pies.

You two lay submerged in Eiffel towers’ shadows,
Near thick verdant bulges, far from madding crowds.
Six-legged courtiers hustled to guide us through.

Your son wiped your tablets like computer screens.
I stacked your trays, poured flat colorless liquor.
Mom mentioned the Buddha; I mumbled immature words.

Midway we paused, some went to greet neighbors,
Each two burning sticks, oft with nods and prayers.
I wondered whose child would bother to visit last.

Mom announced the time; we set aflame the fakes,
Met the caretaker, gave oranges with both hands.
He saw your grandson’s car thunder here last week.

The taxi took us back, a bus blocking your roadside.
An unsold high-rise bore a pompous French name.
The city had left you the way you left Christ.

At our doorstep, we leapt over fiery newspapers.
I saw your frames glisten switching the lights on.
Did you both follow me? Maybe you took that bus.

 

Uncle
By Nguyen Binh

For bác Giao

You would never figure this language out if you, say,
saw it. I was not fluent in the language of death
when I clutched your picture with my hands.
Four times have I scored a 9 on the proficiency test,
are you fine with it? The last time was a 9.75
but the plastic tubes forbade me from rounding it.
I dreamed about it—dreamed about the night
you held my hand through the hallway, guiding me
from the lions in the dark. When I awoke,
I couldn’t hear the Reunification Express.
Nor could my radio telescope catch the noise
of your Soviet TV when the light came down.
They did not lie you down:
they burned you, and I was scared you might wake up.

Did you know there is a mass grave near your house,
for the old famine? You walk along the Lethe,
pass the bus stop where nightingales stutter,
then get consumed by alleys, not opening your eyes
while returning home. I was there a year later,
and it was winter, so Aunt did not switch on
the air conditioner you could have fixed,
the light bulbs you could have changed.
You could have seen them wash clean the river,
the way they couldn’t your liver,
just don’t see how I would strut and fret to deliver
any regret when the border guards
let out the smoke signals that day.

I was told that Aunt cried in the kitchen,
for the word “knife” sounds like your name.
When I returned from the mass grave,
the dusted doorbell still had your name.
That dust has migrated to your picture,
where you smile without hearing your name.
I guess because you gave me a heatproof kettle,
it took years to boil the water with your flame.
Sometimes I wonder to the walls and ceiling
why I could not bring myself to tears that day,
and I hate it like slamming a drawer shut.

 

 

Timothy Donnelly‘s books of poetry include The Cloud Corporation, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, The Problem of the Many, and Chariot, which will be published by Wave Books this spring. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn. 

January Gill O’Neil is an associate professor at Salem State University, and the author of Glitter Road (forthcoming, 2024), Rewilding (2018), Misery Islands (2014), and Underlife (2009), all published by CavanKerry Press. From 2012-2018, she was the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Her poems and articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, American Poetry Review, Poetry, and Sierra Magazine, among others. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Cave Canem, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, O’Neil was the 2019-2020 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. She currently serves as the 2022-2023 board chair of the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP).

Nguyen Binh (they/them) is a writer and astronomer native to Hanoi, Vietnam. Binh’s poetry has appeared in the Euphony Journal, and their English translation of the Vietnamese novel-in-verse Tale of Kiều received the 2022 Young Writers Award for Translation of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association. Binh is finishing their dual bachelor’s degree in Astronomy and Linguistics at the University of Arizona.

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